Power through Prayer
Topic: Expository Passage: Mark 9:14-29
I’d like to take the next 2 Sundays to revisit our theme for 2020, “Devoted to Prayer.” Specifically, I’d like to consider 2 passages from the life of Christ that stretch our vision of what God can accomplish through prayer and then to stretch how we pray. This morning, we are going to consider a wonderfully encouraging and challenging story from the life of Christ in Mark 9:14–29.
Matthew, Mark, and Luke all tell this story immediately after the Mt. of Transfiguration. But I’m using Mark’s account, because he gives the fullest and most vivid account of the story. This is probably because Mark received much of his material directly from Peter; therefore, Mark’s account is almost certainly Peter’s vivid recollection of these incredible events.
Remember that Peter, James, and John accompanied Jesus up the Mt. of Transfiguration. It was a stunning experience for them. But sort of like Moses when he came down from Mt. Sinai to see the golden calf, Jesus, Peter, James, and John also walked into a chaotic scene when they came down the mountain. And the chaos was focused around the other 9 disciples who had just endured a terribly embarrassing failure. So, vv. 14–19 describe…
I. The Disciples’ Failure (vv. 14–19)
The Chaotic Scene (vv. 14–16): Verse 14 says that as the 4 men descend from the mountain they see “a great multitude.” Right in the middle of the crowd are the 9 disciples and a group of scribes who are “disputing with them.” The crowd is wound up, and the conversation between the disciples and scribes is hot. Peter’s thinking, “This can’t be good.”
However, when the crowd sees Jesus, they run toward him, but Jesus calmly presses forward to the 9 disciples and the scribes. He asks, “What are you discussing with them?” The crowd is pressing in tightly around them, and Peter is thinking, “What in the world is causing all of this fuss?” In vv. 17–18, a desperate father speaks up.
The Desperate Father (vv. 17–18): Your heart goes out to his man. He loves his son, but for several years he has watched a demon ruthlessly torture his boy. The demon caused awful seizures. The boy would collapse to the ground, foam at the mouth, grind his teeth, and become rigid.
These are all symptoms of grand mal seizures. I’ve never personally seen someone endure one of them, but I have to imagine that it is a scary, terrible thing to watch. I can’t imagine watching my son endure them seizures time after time and year after year.
And as you would expect, liberals want to argue that the boy doesn’t actually have a demon; he just has epilepsy. The father only thought the boy had a demon, because he didn’t understand anatomy. However, the Gospel writers were very aware of the differences between natural illness and demons, and the demon’s reactions to Jesus in vv. 20, 26 clearly demonstrate that this is no natural phenomenon.
How scary would it be for the father not only to helplessly watch his boy endure these awful seizures, but to recognize that demonic power had captured his son. To make matters worse, v. 22 says that the demon would often throw the boy into water or fire, and the father feared that the demon would kill his son. Imagine standing by helplessly as a demon throws your child into the water, and you fear he will drown. It’s awful.
This man is desperate and grieving, but he came to the right place. Sure, Jesus wasn’t there, but Mark 6:7 states that Jesus had granted the disciples authority to cast out demons. And they had successfully used that power (6:12–13). Therefore, the 9 disciples surely assumed that they would be able to cast out this demon. But this demon didn’t obey them.
This was the reason for the chaotic scene that Jesus, Peter, James, and John discovered. The father was devastated, the disciples were embarrassed, the scribes were having a heyday ragging on them for their failure, the crowd was loving the show, and Jesus was deeply disappointed. Notice his…
The Condemnation (v. 19): You can hear the disappointment and grief in Jesus’ voice, when he asks, “How long shall I bear with you?” He loves these people, and grieves over their sin.
Specifically, Jesus grieves over this “faithless generation.” So, the reason the exorcism had been unsuccessful was because of a lack of faith. And we’ll see that faith remains an important theme throughout the story. Jesus challenges the father’s faith in vv. 23–24, and the disciples’ faith in vv. 28–29. So, Jesus wants to use this event to challenge us to grow a strong faith that leads to prayer and power. We’ll talk about this more as we go.
But for now we need to ask who is Jesus condemning for their lack of faith? Is he condemning the father, the disciples, the scribes, the crowd, or a combination of these? The fact that he addresses a “generation” means that Jesus is thinking broadly, so we should assume he is condemning all of them.
But based on vv. 28–29, I believe that Jesus is especially disappointed in his disciples. This is because had their hearts been right, the disciples would have been able to cast out this demon. But because their faith was weak, they lacked spiritual power. As a result, the demon mocked them instead of submitting to them. The disciples were not ready for the full ministry Jesus had for them.
It ought to cause us to consider how the demons view us as individuals and as a church? Now, I want to be clear that God has not called us to go around casting out demons and performing miracles. Jesus and the apostles lived during a very unique, transitional period in redemptive history, which is very different from our context.
But Ephesians 6:12 states, “We…wrestle against…powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this age, against spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places.” So, we are fighting demonic powers as we struggle for holiness and to win the lost and fulfill the Great Commission.
So, do these powers fear us, because we are full of spiritual life and power? Or do they see us as no threat to their kingdom, because we lack spiritual power? Do they see us as a grace-empowered rival to their kingdom or a cute little church that poses little actual threat? How we ought to pray that Jesus doesn’t grieve over our lack of faith and spiritual power as he did over the 9. But thankfully, Jesus responds in grace. As a result, vv. 20–24 detail…
II. The Father’s Struggle (vv. 20–24)
The Demon’s Defiance (v. 20): Even though Jesus is wearied by the faithless scene, he tells the crowd to bring him the boy. And v. 20 says that when the demon sees Jesus, he is enraged. The demon clearly recognizes a power in Jesus that he did not see in the disciples; therefore, he throws the poor boy into wild convulsions.
And the fact that Mark describes the wild seizures 3xs in vv. 18, 20, 26 indicates that he wants us to appreciate the power and ruthless evil of this particular demon. The Scriptures are clear that some demons are stronger than others, and Jesus knows this one is especially strong.
Jesus’ Compassion (vv. 21–22): Jesus is moved with sympathy and compassion toward the boy and his father; therefore, he asks the father, “How long has this been happening to him?” Even though he is sovereign God, he still grieves over the effects of sin and evil.
The father responds that this has been going on “from childhood.” Therefore, we can presume that for several years this man had helplessly watched his son endure the demon’s evil. Specifically, he had endured the terror of watching the demon throw his son in the fire and the water. It’s terrible. Therefore, notice his appeal at the end of v. 22. “If You can do anything, have compassion on us and help us.”
To be fair, this is not the most glorious prayer in Scripture. He is not even sure Jesus can help. Afterall, his disciples just failed. But he has a compelling sincerity and humility. He thinks Jesus can help, and he sees the compassion in Jesus’ eyes, so he humbly pleads with Jesus to help his son and help him.
Jesus’ Compassion (v. 23): There’s a minor textual variant here that has influenced the NKJV reading. I believe the NASB gets it right, when it quotes Jesus as saying, “‘If you can?’ All things are possible to him who believes.” In other words, Jesus parks momentarily the father’s doubt. Again, Jesus returns to the issue of faith. He gently but firmly pushes back on the father’s doubt.
Then he asserts, “All things are possible to him who believes.” Now, we shouldn’t read that statement, like the faith healers and prosperity preachers would as Jesus offering a blank check to get whatever you want from God if you have enough faith. We just saw in the book of Job that God doesn’t always bless the righteous with temporal things. And the context here is spiritual warfare, not temporal cares like health and prosperity. Warring against demons is very different than praying for a Mercedes.
But Jesus is still making a bold offer based on his infinite might. He is saying that there is no limit to how God can work on behalf of those who believe. God is ready to do awesome works on behalf of those with strong faith.
Yet very often, we think, “That person will never get saved” or “My husband will never mature into a godly leader.” Or we look at our community or nation and think, “We are too far gone to ever enjoy widespread revival.”
But Jesus says, “That’s nonsense. I’m Almighty God. ‘All things are possible to him who believes.’” We desperately need to believe that God can do whatever he desires, and we need to look at ministry through the lens of a big God.
Folks, there is no limit to what God can do in your spouse, your children, your neighbor, Apple Valley, California, the USA, or the hardest Muslim nation in the world. Our God is strong! So, let me park on my little pet peeve. I get so frustrated when we moan about our state as if it is a hopeless hell hole. Our God is strong, and Jesus said and the fields are white for harvest. We shouldn’t mope in despair; we should embrace the challenge of reaching people anticipating all that God can do. “All things are possible.”
Returning to the text, the father responds to Jesus’ incredible statement with one of my favorite confessions in all of Scripture, “Lord, I believe; help my unbelief.” You have to appreciate his honesty. He’s got doubts about whether or not Jesus can do this. But he’s desperate, and he wants to believe, so he pleads with Jesus, not just to heal his son, but to strengthen his faith.
I love this statement, because we can all relate to this man’s struggle. I know that I can. During the course of my Christian journey, I’ve struggled with doubts about everything, and it’s not always easy to believe “All things are possible.” So, I really appreciated James Edwards’ comment about this verse, “True faith is always aware how small and inadequate it is.”
But I also love this statement, because of what it says about what matters to Jesus. Afterall, Jesus isn’t turned off by the man’s confession; instead, he drives out the demon. He is clearly pleased with this man’s faith.
So often, we think of faith like a measuring cup. We think God wants quantity of faith without any doubt. But Jesus said that God only desires faith the size of a “mustard seed” (Matt 17:20). He cares about quality, not quantity.
Furthermore, God’s gifts are 100% grace; we don’t merit any of them. So, effective faith is not about impressing God with how much you believe. No, the core of genuine faith is humble dependence. Edwards nails it again when he says, “The father becomes a believer not when he amasses a sufficient quantum of faith but when he risks everything on what little faith he has, when he yields his insufficiency to the true sufficiency of Jesus.” Again, faith is about dependence, not my spiritual greatness.
Therefore, when my faith is weak, I don’t look to myself to drum up more faith. No, I do exactly what this man does. I cry out to Jesus, “Help my unbelief”! I look to Christ, not myself. “When I fear my faith will fail, Christ will hold me fast.” I don’t keep myself; he keeps me.
So, maybe there is someone here who has never received Christ as Savior, because you don’t think you don’t have enough faith. I hope you will see that Christ isn’t waiting in heaven with scale for your faith to get heavy enough for you to be saved. Rather, he just wants you to humbly cast yourself on him. Yield your insufficiency to the sufficiency of Christ. If you do, he will help your unbelief. You can do that right now, where you are sitting. Confess your sin to the Lord, and cast yourself on the mercy of the cross.
And if you are saved, keep doing the same thing every day of your life. Don’t try to please the Lord by drumming up something in your; look to him. By God’s grace, keep your eyes on Jesus. Let his glory fill your vision. And know that Christ will hold you fast. Praise the Lord. Returning to the text, vv. 25–27 follow by describing…
III. Jesus’ Power (vv. 25–27)
Verse 25 says that Jesus authoritatively “rebuked the unclean spirit” and commanded him to “come out of him and enter him no more.” The demon hated Christ and did all that he could to resist, causing the boy once again to “convulse.” But in the end, he was no match for Jesus. He had to come out.
I imagine that it was quite the sight for the crowd to behold, and then suddenly the demon was gone. However, the boy was left lying limp on the ground. In fact, many in the crowd thought he was dead.
“But Jesus took…” This boy had just endured incredible trauma. So, not only does Jesus defeat the demon, he also instantaneously restores the boy’s strength and health.
It was a marvelous display. Jesus proved that he is worthy of our faith and compassionate toward our weakness. The crowd was surely stunned, and we can only imagine how overjoyed the father was. But the primary message of this text is still to come. Verses 28–29 conclude the story with…
IV. The Disciples’ Search (vv. 28–29)
I’m sure the disciples were very happy to see Christ defeat the demon, but the 9 disciples who failed to cast out the demon were left with a nagging question. I’m sure it gnawed at them all afternoon. That evening, when they finally were in private with Jesus, they asked, “Why could we not cast it out?”
Jesus replies, “This kind can come out by nothing but prayer and fasting.” I’ll just go ahead and mention that there is another variant in this verse, which is why some of your Bibles include “fasting” and others omit it. It’s not really a big deal either way, because prayer and fasting are so closely related, and they both symbolize dependence on the Lord.
That being said, Jesus answers the disciples by first acknowledging that this particular demon was a unique “kind.” So, he’s not saying “This kind of power”; he is saying “This kind of demon.”
The implication is that casting out this kind of demon requires a different level of power than the disciples currently possessed. Then Jesus adds that the only way they could enjoy this level of power was through a deep commitment to prayer and fasting.
So, we can assume that the disciples got cocky. They cast out a few demons, and they lost sight of why the demons obeyed them. The demons weren’t submitting to the disciples’ authority; they were submitting to Christ’s.
The disciples grew content with the power they enjoyed, and they did not labor in prayer. They didn’t have the faith to see the full vision of what God’s power could accomplish. Then along came a demon that was out of their league, and he embarrassed them.
It’s such an ominous example, because so often we find ourselves in the same position. We love Jesus, and we want to serve Jesus, so we get involved in ministry. And praise the Lord, good things happen. We encourage some people and help to make some disciples. We’re proud of all that we think we have done, and we grow content with where we are. We put the spiritual life in cruise control and sit back at a comfortable pace.
Sadly, we have no vision for all that God could accomplish if he really put his hand on us. So, Satan sees no need to rock the boat. He’s perfectly content to let us scratch at the edges of his kingdom, because he knows we don’t pose any serious threat. So, he lets us feel good about ourselves and keep doing our thing.
And God put this text in the Bible to say that there is a world of evil and a world of spiritual power that goes far beyond our little tricks. This week, the Lord has really challenged me that I don’t want to just play nice little ministry games. I want the hand of God to be on me and to be on our church.
I want to see God use us to storm the gates of hell and inflict serious damage. I want to see God use us to reap a harvest of lost souls converted to Christ. I want to see God use us to convict and restore the sinner, fix broken relationships, and push believers into a deep walk with the Lord. Is that what you want? Do you want God to use you to radically impact the people in your sphere? Do you want to reach the lost and impact the health of our church? I hope you do.
How do we get there? Jesus says God only grants this power to those who are serious about going deep with God in fellowship and dependence. We have to labor in prayer, or we don’t stand a chance attacking Satan’s kingdom.
So, be honest with yourself. Do you pray like someone who should expect God’s mighty hand of power? If our entire church prayed the way you do, how much grace would we really enjoy?
I want to be clear that I’m not saying that prayer somehow buys the favor of God, so if you pray for 5 minutes, you get 5%, etc. No, it’s all grace. No, the issue is like the father in this story, do we sense our desperate need and do we desperately cling to the Lord as a result? If we do, we will pray, and we will pray a lot, and we can know that “God gives grace to the humble.”
Let’s all see with the vision of our Savior. There is far more to be done, and God is more than able. And then let’s devote ourselves to lives of deep dependence in prayer. Let’s learn to stay long at the throne of grace. And let’s anticipate all that God will accomplish in us and through us.